One of the downsides of coaching a team with two stars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis on it is that Frank Vogel is never going to get much credit when the Lakers win. I mean, of course they won! They had LeBron James and Anthony Davis!
But blame? Vogel certainly gets plenty of that, especially when things go wrong, and even more so when his two stars are missing, thus exposing his fraudulence, according to internet logic, as if every other good coach has a winning record without the two players their roster is built around. All you have to do is search his name on Twitter, and you don’t have to scroll far to find your fair share of social media critics. He’s “not an NBA quality coach,” “doesn’t know what he’s doing,” might be “a liability,” could be just “insane” or is even “the worst coach in the Western Conference.” And those are just the critiques I can repeat on a family website. Some are a little more profane.
And look, I’m not hear to say that Vogel is a perfect coach, and he certainly doesn’t seem to care much about public recognition for his contributions, judging by the way he deflects or diffuses pretty much any praise that does come his way. But he does deserve more credit — or at the very least leeway — than he’s usually given on the internet. Because, yes, the Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but Vogel has also helped this team figure out ways to stay competitive without those guys.
Let’s start with Davis. A preseason Defensive Player of the Year favorite and perennial contender for the award, Davis has missed 20 games, and the Lakers have still managed to have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 106 points per 100 possessions on the season. And while the argument that Davis doesn’t affect the Lakers’ defense is rendered moot by simply watching him instead of only looking at spreadsheets, the Lakers have actually managed to hold their opponents to 105.1 points per 100 possessions when Davis is off the court, and have maintained their stranglehold on the leaderboard for best defense in the league even since he went down.
LeBron certainly deserves some credit for that, too. The Lakers are a full 3.7 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he plays than when he sits, and he’s one of just three Lakers to play significant minutes — along with Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma — who the Lakers are worse than their season average on defense when they sit than they are when they play. His communication is instrumental to this team’s success on that end, and he should be a shoe-in for an All-Defensive team if he returns before the end of the regular season. But he’s also not the only thing holding this defense together.
It took the Lakers five games to get their first win since James joined Davis on the bench, but it wasn’t because their defense completely cratered. Over the five games since James went down — he only played 10 minutes against the Hawks — the Lakers are only 0.2 points per 100 possessions worse on defense than their league-best season average. Vogel and his staff’s adjustments are holding this team’s defense together with duct tape, chewing gum and grit, giving them a chance to at least compete every night.
But even Vogel will admit he doesn’t deserve all the credit for that. The players are the ones that are actually going out and playing, after all, and he always makes sure to credit his whole roster.
“We’ve got a lot of fighters on this team. All the guys who are playing during this stretch, even though we’ve struggled at times in stretches over the last 3-4 games, our competitive spirit has been very high,” Vogel said. “I could say that about every player on our team. This team has a high care factor and loves to compete.”
That’s a mindset his team has embodied on the floor and echoed off of it.
“We can’t look forward to two weeks when AD and Bron come back, three weeks when they come back, whenever they come back, we can’t be looking forward to that,” said center Montrezl Harrell. “We’re not just looking to hold on our keep our heads above water while we don’t have those guys, man. We’re trying to compete and still win games.”
“This is only going to make us a scarier team when we get back healthy,” added veteran guard Wesley Matthews. “Everybody’s getting an opportunity to showcase a little bit more, do a little bit more, getting a little bit more confidence, and then now when those guys come back in, everybody else is just hitting on all cylinders and we’ve got two of the best players in the world coming back.
“Right no we’re just holding the fort down,” Matthews continued. “Our goal is to win every game that we play still. That doesn’t change.”
Still, at some point we have to acknowledge the common denominator in all this. Every NBA team has competitors, even if this Lakers squad does seem to have a uniquely high level of fight in that regard. But coming off of the shortest offseason any team has ever played and missing their two stars, it would also be really easy for them to roll over. They aren’t doing that. The players deserve to be recognized for that, but so does Vogel, even if the results haven’t been there in every game.
The defense Vogel has schemed up and convinced players to buy in to is at least putting them in a position to stay in these games and have a shot, and at some point we have to acknowledge the constant there. It’s not one player exploding offensively to help the Lakers stay in games, and it’s not one Defensive Player of the Year candidate papering over everyone’s mistakes: It’s the Lakers’ defensive-minded head coach.
Even in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, Vogel’s fingerprints were all over the Lakers’ 11th double-digit comeback victory of the season. Harrell credited Vogel for showing the team which specific defensive rotations they were missing at halftime and imploring them to communicate better and fix it, something Matthews said eliminated the Lakers’ self-inflicted issues. Matthews added that coaching staff’s attention to detail in the film room has helped the team fix the mistakes they are making with limited practice time, something that the team near-universally praised Vogel for during their run to the title in the bubble, and a continuation of the defensive mindset he’s instilled in this team since his first training camp in Los Angeles.
But again, this team has plenty of built-in excuses right now, even against one of the worst teams in the NBA in the Cavaliers. Missing their two stars and as banged-up as any team in the league during a condensed stretch of their schedule, coming off of four losses in a row, down at halftime and playing on the second night of a back-to-back and their fifth game in seven nights, the Lakers could have just rolled over. Instead, they held the Cavs to just 10 points in the third quarter.
After the win, I asked Vogel how rare it is in his experience for a team to not just give in under such circumstances, and in a rare occurrence, he actually gave himself some credit.
“It’s something I demand of my group. I’ve always demanded a high level of defensive intensity, proficiency, care factor (and) hustle,” Vogel said. “This is what wins for you. Okay? You can have as much talent as you want, if you’re not going to play harder than your opponent and honor the defensive end, you’re not going to win at a high level. That’s what’s expected of our group.”
And while the players deserve credit for meeting those expectations, it’s also probably past time we also give some to the man holding them such a high standard. The Lakers need every win they can get to stay afloat in the standings without their two stars for what looks like it’s going to be an extended stretch, and if Vogel’s mad scientist routine on defense can help them steal a few more wins, it’s going to past time he gets the recognition he deserves. He may not be perfect — few coaches are — but he’s one of the best defensive coaches the NBA has ever seen, and the way the Lakers have managed to stay locked in on defense without their two stars has shown that it’s past time he gets acknowledged for it.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.